Saturday, March 22, 2014

Something fishy about that ichthyologist

This morning I was watching one of the later Charlie Chan movies -- made by the bargain-basement (to put it kindly) Monogram Pictures and starring Sidney Toler -- when something caught my eye.

One scene takes place aboard a ship where a murder has been committed. One of the suspects, a middle-aged and cranky ichthyologist, is sitting in a deck chair, reading a book about his specialty.

When it came to designing a cover for the book that the fish scientist was reading (yes, you guessed right -- I didn't want to have to type out that word again), the Monogram prop department spared no expense.

The cover for the book, at least on my iPad, seems to be made from a paper grocery bag. (My mom used to make covers like that for my grammar-school books.)

On the cover, in block letters, is the title of the book, in its entirety:

FISH

I suppose I should give the prop folks the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps a longer title was planned, but the Magic Marker ran out of ink, the prop department didn't have any more of those pens, and there was no money in the budget to buy more.

(Which reminds me of how, at my former workplace many years ago, if your pen ran out of ink, you could get a new one from the woman who was in charge of the supplies -- if you returned the one that had just stopped working.)

Speaking of Charlie Chan (ah, I'm a clever lad when it comes to transitions, am I not?), a few years ago TCM released a DVD set of four of the Chan Monogram movies at a list price of about $40.

Even now, I'm surprised that the media -- or at least the entertainment media -- missed what I think is a big story.

For as far as I can tell, this is the first time in entertainment history that the cost of a DVD set has far exceeded the movies' combined budgets.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From 'Beautiful Dreamer' to grisly murder

Having spent last Sunday night at the airport waiting for my flight home after the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I finally got around to watching the season finale of HBO's "True Detective."

It's a fine show, with outstanding performances by Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and others, but it's definitely not for the kiddies, and the finale had a couple of scenes that made me glad I hadn't just eaten an eight-course meal.

In another scene, the detectives played by Harrelson and McConaughey question an elderly woman in a nursing home.

I was sure I recognized the woman. I thought she might be Jacqueline Scott, who was always showing up in 1960s TV shows, especially "The Fugitive," in which she played Richard Kimble's sister.

After the show, I looked the series up on the Internet Movie Database, and it turns out I was wrong.

It wasn't Jacqueline Scott.

But it was Terry Moore.

Yes, the same Terry Moore who more than 60 years ago starred as the keeper of the giant ape named "Mighty Joe Young." I first saw that movie many years ago on TV and haven't seen it since, but I remember thinking at the time that it was wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. Maybe I'd have a different opinion today. Then again, how can you make a movie about an ape who is always calmed down when Moore's character plays "Beautiful Dreamer" on the piano and not be tongue-in-cheek?

I always get a kick out of seeing older actors in new movies. Some years ago at a mystery conference, I saw a short film called "The Grand Inquisitor," starring the marvelous Marsha Hunt, the quintessential dream girl next door from the 1940s, playing someone you might not want next door. It's a great piece of noir made by Eddie Muller, and you can see it here.

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to be doing this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn't read this.)

During the Friday evening of fun and games preceding this year's tournament in Brooklyn, something happens that makes me think that I might -- just might -- have a chance of improving my ranking from last year's 166 to (dare it be hoped?) the Top 100.

Ten stations are set up in the ballroom. At each one, a puzzle maker presides over competitions involving a particular kind of puzzle. You can spend 20 minutes at each of four of the stations, with breaks in between. If you do well enough, you get tickets that you can redeem for puzzle books at the end of the evening.

The competition at the first station I go to involves estimates -- what's the total current population of the U.S., how many screen credits did Mel Blanc have, and other esoteric queries. Those whose answers fall within certain percentages of the right answers are to get tickets.

I take my best shots, but I am well aware of how poor my aim is when it comes to things like this. I estimate that my chances of winning range from zilch to diddly-squat, and this estimate alone proves to be right on the money.

The next station involves cryptic crossword puzzles, which I am sometimes fairly good at, but I usually need a lot more than 20 minutes, and this time is no exception.

I do a lot better at my next competition -- a word search puzzle -- but I fall one answer short of winning anything.

Finally I hit some pay dirt at a competition that involves the kind of puzzles featured on "Wheel of Fortune." Each puzzle shows only the vowels, and each involves all five of them.

I've long had a knack for this sort of thing, and although I don't do a perfect job, I do well enough to get four tickets.

Aha, methinks -- I'll at least have something to bring home.

So I stay through the wine and cheese party that follows, but when the winners are announced at the end, it turns out that you need a lot more than four tickets to win anything.

So my "pay dirt" is really, at best, a smudge.....

On Saturday I'm up bright and early for the first of six puzzles, and I'm seasoned enough to waste little time in getting a seat in what I know will become a crowded ballroom. I'm ready for battle with my five soldiers -- OK, OK, lead pencils -- arrayed before me, awaiting orders, just as they have for the past year as they sat in a resealable bag in a shelf in my home.

The first puzzle, "To Tell the Truth," by Kelly Clark, is fairly easy (the first words of the theme answers are "open," "frank," "candid" and "real"), but I still take longer than I should because of two crossing answers in the right middle section; it takes me a while to figure out that "Sound from a bell tower" is BONG and "Like many homes on HGTV" is REDONE.

Next is "Five Borough Bridges," by Patrick Blindauer, whose puzzles can be fearsome. But this one seems easy -- maybe too easy. I never do figure out the theme, and I'm concerned that my answer to one clue, "Lightning Bolt," seems to make no sense but is apparently the only possible answer.

A few minutes after tournament director Will Shortz calls time, I find out that the trick of the puzzle involves names of local bridges that are separated by black squares -- BatMAN HAT TANdem, for example. It also turns out that I might be the only person in the civilized (and perhaps uncivilized) world who hadn't known that there is a famous sprinter named USAIN Bolt. But that doesn't matter because, as I later find out, I have a perfect score on this puzzle -- and the first one, too.

The third puzzle, "Silence of the Lampreys," is by Merl Reagle, whose Sunday-size puzzles appear in my weekly paper. This one seems a little harder until I figure out that all the theme answers involve a missing "eel" sound -- FIX THE CAT instead of Felix the Cat, for example. OK ... if Merl says so.

Before lunch, preliminary standings are online. I can't recall whether these were based on the first two puzzles or just the first one, but I do know that I'm now No. 142 out of 580. Not the top 100 of course, but not 166 either, and I have four more puzzles to do -- including the dreaded No. 5.

After lunch I face the fourth puzzle, "Spaced Out," by MaryEllen Uthlaut. The theme answers include the letters "ET," so that an inexperienced alien becomes a GREEN HORNET (or rather GREENHORN ET).

The puzzle is pretty easy, which is just as well, because I'll need all my stamina for Puzzle 5, traditionally the hardest puzzle, and in this case it's "Send in the Clones" by Brendan Emmett Quigley, who to me is even more fearsome than Patrick Blindauer.

The trick in the puzzle might be the most convoluted one I've ever seen in a Puzzle 5, and I've seen seven of them so far. See if you can follow this (perhaps better yet, see if I can follow it): The clue is "Tried / 1964 title role." The answer is STRANGELOVE -- you take STROVE (tried), separate the letters and insert ANGEL, and you get STRANGELOVE.

Where, you might ask, does the ANGEL come from? It comes from the Down answer that gave us the G: "Religious figure." So you have one ANGEL crossing another ANGEL.

Yeah, I know. I didn't really figure it out myself. But what helped me, I think, is that I took the approach I often taken when Puzzle 5 comes along: Fill in the answers you know as quickly as you can and hope the theme will occur to you. And although it never really did, and although few people, at most, seemed to finish the puzzle, I was only a few clues short of a perfect solution. Perhaps STRANGELOVE was, in its obscure way, the key. Once I got STROVE, I knew it had to be STRANGELOVE, even if I didn't know where the ANGEL came from. Or perhaps I have a GUARDIAN ANGEL (or, perhaps more aptly, a CROSSING GUARDIAN ANGEL) who has been coming to Brooklyn with me.

Puzzle 6, the last one of the day, is usually pretty easy, and for the most part this puzzle, "UH ... LIKE ... YOU KNOW?" by Anna Schectman, ran true to form, with theme answers that included "UM" and "ER." ("One singing psalms loudly" is a BIBLE BELTER.)

That was easy enough. But my problem was a case of "The cultural references giveth and the cultural references taketh away."

It was a classic instance of what I call the Dreaded Double Cross -- two intersecting words for which you don't have much of a clue. This was payback for my getting lucky with USAIN.

"One of the girls on 'Girls.'" Now I know what "Girls" is. It's the HBO show that sometimes came on after "True Detective." I watched "True Detective," but in my household we always switched before "Girls" came on.

Big mistake -- as far as the tournament was concerned.

I knew the answer was _ESSA. What else could it be but TESSA?

The clues for the intersecting word was "Backpack brand" and had to be _ANSPORTS. So I figured it was TANSPORTS, ignoring that an answer below it was SPRAY TAN.

As I'm guessing many if not most of you know, the correct answers were JESSA and JANSPORTS.

Saturday night, the current standings, based on the first four puzzles, show me around 166, even though I did the first four puzzles perfectly. I'm guessing I'm still not fast enough, and I'm hoping that I did so much better on Puzzle 5 than many others seemed to that it will cushion the self-inflicted blow of Puzzle 6.

The big Sunday morning puzzle, Puzzle 7, the last one everybody does, is "It All Ads Up," by David J. Kahn. It's trickier than usual for a Puzzle 7, with a square of numbers in the middle (each row adding up to 15), but I figure it out soon enough to finish 22 minutes early.

The championship showdown is exciting enough,involving Howard Barkin, Dan Feyer (four-time winner and current champ) and Tyler Hinman (five-time winner). Feyer beats Hinman by a few minutes to successfully defend the title.

And now, one week after the tournament, I'm at 164, up two places from last year's 166. Perhaps the rankings will be revised again (as they usually are as scoring mistakes are found), but I have a feeling they won't be at this late date.

Were it not for JESSA, I think I would have finished around 142 again.

At any rate, I won't be going to Brooklyn again.

No, I'm not bailing out of the tournament; the tournament is bailing out of Brooklyn after seven years and returning to Stamford, Conn., where it started in the 1970s.

Who knows? Maybe a change of venue will improve my score.

And maybe I should look for another CROSSING GUARDIAN ANGEL -- preferably, one who watches all the TV shows I can't be bothered with.

UPDATE, March 21: Just checked the standings again, and I'm now down to 165 -- one place above last year. Well, it's still progress, I suppose....

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Never mind that tree in the woods....

Q. How many epistemologists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. How do you know it's a light bulb?

Across and down to Brookyn, yet again

This weekend I'll be traveling to Brooklyn to try my skill (and luck) at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the eighth straight year.

Last year I finished 166th out of 572 overall (down from 142, unfortunately), but did manage to finish eighth in my regional division.

We'll see what happens. Hope to get back to you next week.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar

For many years when I was a kid, the high school up the street played host to traveling summer-stock ensembles.

These groups were headed by stars of varying magnitudes -- including Joan Fontaine, George Gobel, James Whitmore and Durward Kirby. (Yes, my younger readers, there was once a show-biz person by the name of Durward Kirby. Calling him a star might be stretching it -- he was basically an announcer who found fame as a sidekick on a variety show headed by perhaps the best M.C. of all time, Garry Moore.)

During one of those summer weeks, the star was Sid Caesar, who appeared in "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," written by his one-time writer Neil Simon.

I didn't see the play. (I was too young and stupid to attend most of these plays, not realizing that they provided a great opportunity to see a form of summer entertainment that is now gone forever.)

But I did see a local TV interview with Caesar.

I'm not sure whether "Ten from 'Your Show of Shows,'" a movie featuring some of the best moments from Caesar's signature TV show, had been released. I was too young to have seen that 1950s TV classic, and I mainly knew him from his later appearances on TV shows like "That Girl" and in movies like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Busy Body," a mystery-comedy directed by William "The Tingler" Castle and based on a book by Donald Westlake. Caesar starred in "The Busy Body," but it couldn't bring his career out of rigor mortis.

Anyway, Caesar was interviewed outside a motel less than a mile from my home. The local guy who brought in the summer stock shows apparently had booked a room for him there. (I like to think I'm wrong about that -- the motel is now an assisted-living home, and from what I saw of it once while visiting a couple of friends there, I'm sure that Caesar deserved much better.)

The filmed interview defined the word "paradox" better than any lexicographer could. Some (including me) say that Sid Caesar was one of the funniest comedians ever, but in the interview he acted as if he were days away from a trip to the electric chair and kind of looking forward to it. I don't remember any of the questions or answers -- all I remember is the body language, his stiffness and terseness. The interviewer would have had a much easier time getting blood out of all the stones in the Grand Canyon.

For all I know, onstage up the street from me, aand rmed with material by the country's best-known playwright, Caesar was his usual brilliant self. Off the stage, as himself, he seemed to be in some sort of pain.

Years later I read his autobiography ("Where Have I Been?"), and the broken pieces of Caesar's life and career seemed to fall into place. The book told of his struggles with depression and pills, and I'm now pretty sure that on that summer day outside the motel, he was in the midst of one of those battles.

Apparently he was able to overcome his problems, or at least deal with them, by the time the book came out, because during interviews at that time he seemed much happier. Or at least less tortured.

I won't attempt a deep-dish analysis Sid Caesar's genius. I'll just say that his work still stands up and, I think, always will because like the best comedy performers, he understood human nature, which never changes from century to century -- or from kinescopes to digital.

(To read more about those summer stock shows, go here. The "Rolls-Royce lady" is Joan Fontaine, whom I didn't identify at the time because she was still alive and still, I assume, capable of filing lawsuits.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

The irony always rings twice

I received a letter in the mail today.

The letter is from the U.S. Postal Service.

It invites me to volunteer for a study to help them “understand and improve processing and mail delivery.”

The study would require me to spend “only a few minutes a day” to report the kinds of mail I receive each day. I would make these reports “via an easy-to-navigate website.” (Hmm. Where have we heard that before?)

I hope I won’t seem like a disloyal American when I say that I won’t be participating in the study.

For one thing, I often can’t spare “a few minutes a day.” And I’m sure I’d be forgetful; as it is, I sometimes have trouble remembering to floss. (Just ask my hygienist.)

But even if I wanted to participate, there’s another problem.

Although the letter I received today is from the U.S. Postal Service, it was not sent to me by the U.S. Postal Service.

It was sent to me by my stepmother.

She had received the letter at her home because it was addressed to me at her address.